Watkins takes over offense

Colin Becht

With junior quarterback Dan Persa out for the season with a ruptured Achilles tendon, the Northwestern offensive game plan might change by only five inches.

That’s the difference in height between the 6-foot-1 Persa and new starter redshirt freshman Evan Watkins, who stands at 6-foot-6.

“We’re still going to do the same stuff we do with Dan,” offensive coordinator Mick McCall said. “It may look a little different at times, but it’s still the same stuff.”

Although Persa was the Wildcats’ leading rusher with 519 yards, Watkins warned not to mistake his 245-pound frame for an inability to move on his feet.

“I have no problem running; I love running,” Watkins said. “When I need to show off the mobility, I will do that. I’m not Persa-fast, but I’ll get it done.”

Watkins said when he was timed running the 40-yard dash in high school, he ran it in about 4.8 seconds. His self-declared ability to run should allow NU to maintain much of its same offense, which relied extensively on Persa’s ability to scramble and evade pass rushers.

“He’s a better runner than people want to give him credit for,” McCall said. “We’re still going to do the same things we do offensively.”

McCall has had to deal with other unexpected changes due to injury at quarterback the previous two seasons. Mike Kafka took over for an injured C.J. Bachér at Indiana in 2008, and Persa filled in for Kafka against Penn State and shared time against Iowa in 2009.

In determining the offensive schemes, coach Pat Fitzgerald said he first looks at the specific talents of the players on the field then decides on the appropriate formations and plays.

“We’re going do what our players do best and put them in situations to beat the best schemes,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s not, ‘This is what we do, and either you fit or you don’t.’ We’re going to make it tailor-made for what those guys do best.”

However, in the case of Watkins replacing Persa, there is little difference in what they do best as Fitzgerald said Watkins, like Persa, is a dual-threat quarterback.

Watkins’ height, though evidently not a detriment to his running, could prove an asset when finding open receivers, McCall said.

“He has some vision, where Dan had to create his own spots and places,” McCall said.

Adding to the pressure of replacing the Football Bowl Subdivision’s leader in completion percentage, Watkins will also be making his first start in a rivalry game at Wrigley Field, not far from where he grew up in Carol Stream, Ill.

“He’s excited about the opportunity,” Fitzgerald said. “When you have that kind of guy, you want him to, number one, maybe settle down a little bit.”

Having a lot of experienced starters out on offense with Watkins should boost his comfort level and keep him composed.

“It’s going to help to have (senior offensive tackle Al Netter) out there, one of our captains,” Fitzgerald said.

Watkins said although the excitement of Saturday game’s, dubbed the Allstate Wrigleyville Classic, may be getting to him, his focus remains on the game itself.

“I’ve got a lot of energy, and I can’t stop thinking about it,” he said. “I’m going to be excited, but you just need to stay focused and prevent any distractions you can, keep your mind on winning.”

Despite the tough situation, Fitzgerald said he has tremendous confidence in Watkins’ ability to direct the offense.

“You look back to the Indiana game: Danny goes down, it’s a big third down and to show you the confidence we have in Evan, we don’t run the ball, we throw it,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve got the utmost confidence in him, and he has confidence in himself.”

Fitzgerald said he joked with Watkins about when he promised him during Watkins’ recruitment that he’d make his first start at Wrigley Field.

“Just like we scripted,” Fitzgerald said.

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